Saturday, May 31, 2008

Creation in Chaos

I'm clearing out my spaces - both internal and external - for the start of my summer. My prayer space is tucked into the former closet in my study. As sacred spaces go, it's small - 15 square feet perhaps. The ceiling slants, and for me it evokes the chapel balcony at St. Isaac Jogues outside of Reading. There is a solidity about being tucked up against the buttresses in the chapel, and similarly here in my house.

Last month I met a fellow blogger and his wife - who makes marvelous mosaics. I admit I coveted this one from the moment I saw it on Flickr. Now it hangs in my prayer space, reminding me of chaos, creation, still points in turning worlds, whirlwinds of the all good liturgical art it has layers that keep revealing themselves.

What part of "control freak" don't you understand, Mother?

Crash, the Boy and I went to dinner tonight. There is a nearly blind left turn on the route. As I turn my head to check for traffic coming from the right, Crash leans forward to look as well - completely blocking my view as I pull out. I hit the brake, pushed him back against the seat and then made the turn. As we drove, I explained why he couldn't do that (and that Math Man does it every time!). His response? "What part of 'control freak' don't you understand, Mother?"

I understand control all too well, I'm afraid -- and with teens in the house am learning more everyday.

Meanwhile this morning, Barnacle Boy was musing that our neighbor, Grown Girl, will be learning to drive this summer, followed by his cousin (the sib of She of the Book) next year, then Crash the year following (Crash???)...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

God of My Daily Routine

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times May 29, 2008]

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” [Gn 28:16-17]

It was late, the sun had already set, and Jacob was tired enough to pillow his head on a rock - only to wake the next day from a dream of angels and ladders with the awestruck realization that he was in the presence of the Lord. Most of my mornings don’t begin quite this dramatically. Dawn more often finds me at the kitchen counter with a cup of tea, suspended in stillness before the kids scramble down their bunk bed ladders. But I am beginning to realize that in this mundane moment, I am no less in the presence of God than Jacob was.

I’m tired enough these days to pull up a handy rock and sleep, but no matter how exhausted I am, and how many papers remain to grade, my last fifteen waking minutes are sacrosanct. I use them as St. Ignatius advised - to look at my day with God.

The practice is called the examen, and begins with asking God to open my eyes to see my day as He might see it. I look for the times where I have failed to recognize God, where I have failed to follow Him, but I ask equally to be shown where God has revealed His strength, His presence, and His love to me.

God is not always where I expect, and sometimes I miss His trace the first time round. At the end of a very long day last week, the place God chose to show Himself at work in my life was my cup of tea. Recalling my first bracing sip that morning, and the warmth of the mug in my hand, I became aware that God had subtly offered me strength and ease for the difficult day I did not know was about to unfold.

In his reflection “God of My Daily Routine”, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner hopes in his life to “see the few precious instances when the grace of Your love has succeeded in stealing into an obscure corner of my life”. The examen enabled me to see God slipping into my day in the corner of my kitchen. Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it.

Rahner goes on to remind us “if there is any path at all on which I can approach You, it must lead through the middle of my very ordinary daily life.” God is unlikely to reveal His role for me in the salvation of His people quite as grandly as he did for Jacob, yet a plan He does have. I am encouraged to keep rummaging through my routine days, looking for the path, trying to avoid the inevitable bumps and potholes, and alert to the unexpectedly sacred places.

Five hundred years ago, St. Ignatius advised overextended Jesuits that while they might neglect their breviary, never forgo making the examen. Our lives are no less busy today. Take Ignatius’ advice. Sit with God each night and ask Him to let you see the world around you as nothing less than His house and the gates of grace.
Touch my heart with this grace, O Lord. When I reach out in joy or in sorrow for the things of this world, grant that through them I may know and love You, their Maker and final home. You who are Love itself, give me the grace of love, give me Yourself, so that all my days may finally empty into the one day of Your eternal Life. Amen. [ from Karl Rahner, SJ's reflection, "The God of My Routine" in Encounters in Silence]

The photo is of the ceiling in Sant' Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio. c. Br. Lawrence Lew, OP.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


"Wakey-wakey, Mom," says the shadow next to my bed. "What time is it?" I inquire muzzily. "5:49 am. I guess I didn't need as much time as I though to get ready." This is an understatement. Barnacle Boy is fully dressed and ready to go on his 3-day class camping trip. He doesn't need to leave for almost an hour. Think he might be excited?

5:41? It's not a typo. It's the total number of hours of sleep I had last night.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Transit Mysteries

I'm back from Santa Fe after an intense, but intensely fun, week. I had a 3 hour layover in Denver's airport where I managed to walk my daily 2 miles (2 circuits of the concourse), and find a lovely balcony space in which to set up camp. I followed a sign to "Additional Seating" to find an empty space with handy plugs and no CNN background noise.

What I couldn't find was caffeine. In my final circuit of the concourse I looked for a Diet Pepsi or some iced tea. There were many kiosks and small food stands sprinkled around. Every kiosk cooler I checked had Dasani water - and nothing else. Every food stand had Snapple - but if you wanted iced tea, it would have to be peach. Blech...I like peach, but not in my tea and not artificial peach. By the seventh stop I was beginning to suspect a conspiracy!

I eventually found a Diet Coke - and settled down to work on a paper.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Santa Fe Paradoxes

I'm tucked into a window seat in a 19th century adobe - Santa Fe's sun has vanished, replaced by a chilly rain - listening to George Johnson talking about how he constructed a story on the paradoxes inherent in consciousness. As the rain pounds against the window, I look out to see a merrily spurting sprinkler, its spray billowing like silk in the gusts.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Science Writing in Santa Fe

I learned how (in principle) at least, to tackle being a journalist at a press conference. We did two today at the School of Advanced Research (an anthropololgy/archeology think tank): one in the morning, dissected over lunch, a second after lunch to practice what we'd learned.

My writing assignment for tomorrow is done. Whew!

The photo is the garden at the SAR.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Santa Fe Vigils

The weather is deliciously warm in Santa Fe, though the air a bit thinner. I had smooth travels - despite the early departure and got a 2 mile walk around the historic area of Santa Fe and a nap. The test came after dinner when we had to name all 44 of our colleagues and instructors here. Whew!

A friend works as the music director in the cathedral here, which has been recently renovated. It's lovely, but feels like it should be a bit more "lived in".

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Santa Fe

In about 8 hours, I should be taking off for Santa Fe and the 2008 Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. There are about 40 students coming - from a range of backgrounds. Scientists, journalists, students. My instructor will be Laura Helmuth - the science editor for the Smithsonian. I'm excited by the prospects of getting some feedback on my writing -- and it's rumored to be in the 80s and sunny in Santa Fe. I'm less excited about a 4:30 am ride to the airport.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Strange Attractors

This is a term from chaos theory - Math Man's specialty. I'm at the dining room table, trying to finish my grades (140 papers graded: priceless). There are 10 rooms in this house, an attic, a full basement. Tell me why 1/2 of the residents of the house feel the need to be not only in the room with me, but physically attached to me, and/or my computer?

At least only one of them sheds. Both of them need a bath.

If chaos theory were my academic discipline, would I cope better with this?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Holy Name of Mary and rebellion

I made my First Communion on the feast of the Holy Name of Mary - September 12. When I was asked to write a reflection on Mary for the Catholic Standard & Times sometime in May, I ended up writing about the meaning of the name "Mary" or "Maryam" as it appears in the Greek texts of the Gospels.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times May 15, 2008]
My soul magnifies the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my savior;
so tenderly has he looked upon his servant,
humble as she is.
For from this forth
all generations will count me blessed,
so wonderfully has he dealt with me,
the Lord, the mighty one.
[Lk 1:46-48]

Rebellion is not a word that most of us would use to describe Mary, the Mother of God. In her response to the angel Gabriel, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let your will be done in me.” she becomes for us the very model of submission to the will of God. Yet Maryam, the Gospels name her, a name which can be translated as “rebellion”.

Then, as now, Mary was a common name. Perhaps as many as one girl in four was named Maryam in first century Palestine, in honor of Miriam, prophet to Israel in the desert and the sister of Moses and Aaron. As any parent who has thumbed through books of baby names and searched the family tree for just the right name for a son or daughter knows, our choice embodies our hopes and dreams for the new child. What parent - then or now - hopes for rebellion?

The earliest Christian writers found it hard to imagine that any parent, let alone the parents of the Blessed Virgin, would give a child such an unsuitable name, and went to great lengths to find any other meaning besides that given in the book of the prophet Ezra: “rebellion”.

Could it be derived from the Aramaic mar or Lord and mean “Lady”? Or perhaps from the Hebrew for bitter, maror? In the fifth century, St. Jerome suggested, “mar” meant drop or star, and gave us Mary’s title as “Stella Maris” or Star of the Sea.

In truth, the origins of the name Miriam are lost in antiquity, and for the most part overshadowed by the lives of the women who bore it: Miriam, who led Israel rejoicing in its freedom; Mary, the virgin who bore a son to free us all; Mary of Magdala, who first carried the news of a risen Christ.

I’m not bothered by the possibility that the Virgin Mother wore the name “rebellion”, I find it to be a better mirror of the mystery of God at work in her and in us than “beautiful one” or “Lady”.

Mary shows me how to surrender to God, not in her ultimate words, “let your will be done in me,” but in her first moment of hesitation, “But how can this be?” Hers was not the surrender of unquestioning docility. Nor was it an inevitable surrender to an overwhelming power. Hers was the greater and more courageous surrender. A surrender of her free will, in the face of her doubts and amidst the seeds of rebellion.

At times I have doubts; at times I rebel. But I look to Mary and understand that uninformed obedience is not what is required of me, nor will God force me to do His bidding. I can, like Mary, ask to be shown the task and then to be granted the courage, the strength, the grace to trust God to provide all I will need along the way.

Just as her Son brought us life through death, it somehow seems fitting that we should learn surrender through “rebellion”, through Maryam, the handmaid of the Lord.

Photo c. 2007 by Br. Lawrence, OP. St. Mary's Church in Nottingham, UK.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sign, portents and all that jazz

Some signs are easier to read than others. Last Tuesday I drove 250 miles to Richmond, Virginia for a workshop. Through Baltimore and DC in the late afternoon, hoping against hope to miss the worst of the rush hour. Along 95, just outside DC, I notice all these cars parked on the left hand shoulder. Why? Traffic is moving along nicely, I see the entrance to the high occupancy vehicle lane (3 or more) coming up on the left and note that after 6, anyone can use the lane. Just after the one and only entrance to the lane traffic comes to a crawl for the next 10 miles. Meanwhile, the HOV lane is flying by. Now I get it, it was 5 minutes before 6. Better to pull over and wait the 5 minutes and use the HOV lane, than to spend 30 crawling the same ten mile.

After the half hour of regret for having misread the sigh, I was treated to a beautiful portent - a rainbow that arced from the clouds to the ground literally in front of my eyes.

All in all, 10 hours in the car, reading the signs (road and otherwise) and listening to wonderful jazz. Translucent Soul (thanks Stratoz), Stitched Up...

Monday, May 12, 2008

Time shifting

It's the start of ordinary time and I've moved out of one volume of my breviary into another. Various pieces of my life are tucked between the covers: prayers cards of all sorts (my mother's funeral, a friend's daughter, one from a retreat director a few years back, St. Michael); photos (my kids); a bookmark (a pre-Raphaelite angel); notes (twelve points on humility from St. Benedict, a scripture verse from my spiritual director); and other ephemera of my life (a shopping list - butter, eggs and flour, a cartoon - Baby Blues, a prayer - for patient trust, a strand from the prayer shawl knit for a dying friend)

Tonight I'm staying in the old novitiate at Wernersville. It's a good moment to take stock of what should stay, what should go, what I need to be reminded of. Not just in what's held in prayer (or held in my prayer book, at least), but in my life.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Clouds of Knowing

created at

Last week I took a road trip to Richmond, VA. I spent 30 hours away from home, 10 of them on I-95. I went to a workshop on Visual Resources, which was fascinating on a variety of levels. The "big questions" on the table were, what do you see when you look at an image? and how do you help others decode an image, to read into it what you want them to? We played with a lot of interesting tools, too.

One of the more powerful examples for me was TextArc (click on Alice to see what I mean). What do you see when you take every word in a text and play them out in an arc around the most commonly occuring words? When you can see what words occur near each other? This is just one example of a text cloud tool. A simpler one is at TagCrowd. I fed my blog posts for this year in to get the following:

My spouse is clearly at the center of my life - and my kids are on my mind. Dinner is right up there, too. I enjoyed some of the accidental connections: "going jesuit" and "minutes mom". Why do I write more about water than chocolate? And is years appearing because of my age??

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Fading Glory

Math Man brought me orange roses for my birthday last month. They are still on the dining room table, though long past their prime. They were amazing as they opened, and oddly enough have only grown more beautiful and fascinating - at least in my eyes. Once a single color, they are now striated a deep pink and yellow, as the pigments photobleach and separate. The colors intensified as the petals dry. The texture is richer as well, finely crinkled. Like my skin?

Every day I think I should toss them, then I see them in the soft evening light and decide to admire them one more day...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Round up!

One more evening stroll....

Litany of litanies

Barnacle Boy's hamster's departure from this earth left a little hole in his heart, I've discovered.

I wrote a piece for this week's Catholic Standard and Times on litanies, prodded by a spate of litanies. First there was Stratoz, praying his way through an anxious morning, then I spent an uncomfortable few minutes on an examining table praying the litany of the saints. The next morning, as we chatted over breakfast preparations, Math Man recounted the poem he'd heard on NPR. "It had this interesting structure, a back and forth...I can't quite remember what they called it." "A litany?" Got it in one. And I got the message. Maybe I should write about litanies?

You can read the piece here (and and then perhaps the photo will make sense...)

On the way home from school today I mentioned to the Boy that I'd written about him, and about Rufus. "Is it about that day?" he inquired. "The day Rufus.." He stops me. "Nope! It makes me sad."

Monday, May 05, 2008

Round up?

For the last 18 months, I've been tracking my walking miles on my iPod (and racing my sister-in-law via Nike's web site, right now she's in the lead on our 20 mile challenge!). About a third of the time I forget it, it's not charged or...

Math Man complains that when I have it, he feels like he's "on the clock". Maybe it's because I can measure our pace and point out that I'm slower by 2 minutes a mile when I walk with him?

As of last night's walk I had logged 499.94 miles. I was tempted to walk to the corner and back to get that last 0.06 miles, but resisted walking just to do that. An exercise in patience, I thought. Tonight I headed out the door, only to remember that I'd let Math Man take my Mini - with the iPod still plugged in. I still walked, but the official total remains short!!

Why doesn't the Nike site round up?!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

How to tell if you're really a chemist

You pronounce unionized as UN-ionized not union-ized.
When you hear the word mole, you don't think of an animal.
Milli is a prefix, not a girl's name.

This Sceptical Chemist blog post suggests a new test to tell if you're really a chemist. What do you see when you look at this illustration by Joon Mo Kang? If the first things you see are five bonds to carbon, and three bonds to a hydrogen, you're a chemist. If that's all you see - you are really a chemist.

A couple of chemists missed the point of the illustration so completely they wrote to the NY Times to let them know of their chemical illiteracy. Another blogger was also vexed by the nonsensical molecule.

I'll admit it -- I saw five bonds.